Base closure panel begins four-month deliberations

Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission Chairman Anthony Principi on Tuesday swore in eight commissioners, officially kicking off four frenzied months of analysis and coast-to-coast travel that might result in major changes at more than 100 domestic military installations.

During the first of three sessions planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, commissioners received a quick tutorial from GAO and Congressional Research Service analysts on the base-closing process, as well as lessons learned from four previous rounds in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995.

The most important lesson taken from previous commissions is to adhere to base-closure selection criteria and procedures, said Barry Holman, GAO director of defense capabilities and management. By following procedures, the commission will "ensure the integrity of the process and ensure the confidence of the American public," Holman added, cautioning that the commission's work could be hampered by even a "slight deviation" from the process.

The 2005 BRAC round promises to differ significantly from the previous rounds. Commissioners, for instance, will place a greater emphasis on a base's military value -- essentially how they fit into the Pentagon's operations and vast transformation plans -- as they analyze Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's list of base-closing recommendations. The commission also will weigh more heavily a base's joint capabilities and ability to perform cross-service missions.

Commission members expressed concern Tuesday about the cost savings associated with BRAC and the effectiveness of previous rounds. Philip Coyle, a Pentagon appointee in the Clinton administration, asked why the military still has as much as 25 percent excess capacity after the closure of hundreds of facilities during the 1990s. Holman replied that the military still felt it had too much infrastructure after the 1995 round, adding that the commission should wait until the list comes out to get a "better handle on excess capacity."

Other commissioners asked about a potential loophole -- raised by lawmakers -- that might prevent the military from closing National Guard bases without the consent of the governor of the affected state. "We ought to get that resolved as quickly as possible," said former Transportation Secretary Skinner.

After the hearing, Principi would not comment on the possible National Guard loophole, stating that it is an "issue for lawyers to decide on."

Rumsfeld is expected to release his list next week, Principi said. The commission then has four months to analyze the department's findings before submitting its list of recommendations to the White House by Sept. 8.

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